Unlikely Singularities – Chapter 67


They’re Manly Tights: I Always Drink Coffee While I Watch Radar

January 14, 2017

Steve barely made it out of the shower and into a pair of sweats in the little locker room next to medical without giving in to the lethargy that was sliding down his limbs with a heavy weight and whispering that he should close his eyes – just for a minute. Atlanta didn’t earn him any injuries that hadn’t already healed by the time they had touched down in New York – and there was no way in hell he was staying in medical to fight with the staff about blood tests. If as he could stay awake long enough to get home he could let the serum burn off whatever HYDRA had shot into him.

Sam was arguing against his leaving, trying to get him to at least stay to be monitored. Buck, thankfully, was at his back, not saying much but doing his best impersonation of the Winter Soldier. Bucky understood how important it was to prevent the temptation posed by a sample of serum-infused fluid or tissue in the hands of anyone who didn’t understand the ramifications.

And God, now he missed Bruce. Steve felt more keenly the tight knot of grief that never really seemed to go away. As difficult as the first meeting – the first mission – of the Avengers had been, these were his friends. His comrades. The people best positioned to understand him and everything he stood for. And Bruce, given his experiences with the serum, knew better than even Bucky how Steve’s desire to erase any information on Erksine’s experiments had less to do with his own autonomy, and everything to do with the unintended consequences of playing God. Even him, even Captain America – objectively the best possible outcome of enhancement, had drawbacks. Terrible, untold developments that were still unfolding for him in new and depressing ways three-quarters of a century later.

Sam’s hand on his arm and the sudden tense presence of Buck right behind him snapped him out of the open-eyed doze he had fallen into.

I’m fine,” he repeated for what seemed like the millionth time.

No, Captain Rogers, in point of fact, you aren’t.” The head nurse, Sandra – he was sure Stark had said her name was Sandra – and that made him almost smile. According to Darcy that made it certain her name was actually Morgan or Winnie or Devon or something completely different from Sandra. “Your vitals have been steadily falling below normal ranges since you were hit by those darts, and we have not yet gotten back labs on the chemicals. Even then, the impact on you can’t be judged without adequate blood work.”

Steve didn’t have to answer, Buck did it for him. “No.” At that one word two orderlies stiffened and a younger nurse with less backbone quietly faded away from potential crossfire.

No one is drawing blood,” Sam said, ever the diplomat. “But Steve, an hour or so can’t hurt, just to make sure this doesn’t have any nasty surprises.”

Sam was a good friend. The best of friends. But he couldn’t know how the serum was. What it did. The way Steve could feel it working in him when he was injured; the speed that his body would knit itself back together was a tangible and uncomfortable thing. Even the most powerful drugs and painkillers were washed out of his system – often before he really wanted them to be. Sam couldn’t know the responsibility, to prevent the devastation that could result if the serum was replicated again. The devastation he could cause if he didn’t hold himself to the highest standards.

He wanted to explain, to make a logical argument, but all he could manage was, “’M fine.” He was just so tired. A mild wave of dizziness washed over him. His feet felt disconnected from the rest of him and a distant and fuzzy part of his brain worried that he wouldn’t know if he fell until after he hit the floor. Buck wouldn’t let him, he knew. Always had his back. Always there for him.

Except when he wasn’t.

Except when Steve hadn’t been there for him. When Steve had failed. He couldn’t fail again. Wouldn’t. The consequences were too dire. Too unthinkable. Too painful to his heart and soul. Sam was still talking, trying to find a compromise but the not-Sandra nurse wasn’t having any of it. She took her own responsibilities seriously. Steve appreciated that, demanded it even for his teammates and friends who needed and deserved the best possible care. Should send her something, he thought to himself. A note or…or something. Good to have someone with the gumption to deal with all of us. Most of the conversation floated by him until the elevator announced Tony’s arrival with a ping that sounded louder and longer than usual. He wondered if it was only in his head.

With his usual flamboyance, Tony proclaimed, “The Captain has been cleared from medical.” Steve had never been more grateful for Tony’s entitled nosiness. It occurred to him that as much as Bucky and Bruce and Natasha guarded the serum, Tony might have felt a sort of proprietary aegis toward it as well. It was a Stark that had made the serum work, after all. Without Howard’s Vita-rays…well, there were already too many examples of what happened to Erksine’s formula when combined with other catalysts.

Steve shook off the wandering thoughts. “See? ’M fine.”

The nurse, apparently, didn’t agree. The snap shut of her tablet was loud, bouncing off the hard surfaces of the infirmary and a counterpoint to the squishing stomp of her tennis shoes as she marched off. Tony was his usual crass and insulting self.

Was that a slur in your voice, Captain Decorum? Or are you just happy to see me? No matter. Your new place is mostly done…” Steve tuned out for a minute. My new place. An apartment – admittedly provided by Stark, but the man had agreed to lease it, so Steve was paying for it. And that would be much more discreet than Steve Rogers using a real estate agent. A place that was his – not SHIELD’s. If there was one thing Tony and Steve were on the same page about it was privacy. Steve had been promised Stark level security, but no cameras or listening devices and no conceivable way anyone would be able to plant any without Tony knowing about it. Eventually, his neighbors would recognize him, but hopefully it would be gradual. Give him a chance to go to the corner store and take a run in the park. Read the paper on the front stoop and watch kids ride their bikes.

Steve had a brief daydream about sitting with Bucky, watching the neighborhood go by like they used to. Waving to the postman and saying hello to his neighbors. Darcy coming out behind him with a cup of coffee and a smile. It looked so good. He ached for it.

…escort Goldilocks? You’ll have to have a slumber party, but if you want to get fresh, I won’t tell.”

God, Steve didn’t want to deal with this shit anymore. Grateful as he was to Tony, he just wanted to go home. Sleep. “Can it, Stark.”

Both Sam and Buck followed him into the elevator, flanking him all the way down to the garage as if they were afraid he would fall over. Steve kept his jaw locked tight. He’d never admit how likely that outcome was as only sheer determination kept him from sagging against the wall. Reality blurred in and out for a while after that. A ride in the back of one of the SI fleet cars. Buck’s metal hand in his armpit, both holding him up and urging him forward. There were stairs. So. Many. Stairs. And then soft darkness.

A field of flowers. Steve remembered this. It was in France – or maybe Italy, they had crossed the border so many times he wasn’t always certain what country they were sleeping in. The Commandos had pitched a tent on the edge of it all, next to a stream that was clear and cold and its trickle was the only sound under that soft blue sky other than the buzz of insects and distant bird song. It was the first down time they had had in ages, and Buck was lying back in the grass, hat over his face and pretending to sleep so Dugan would stop pestering him about learning to fish. Steve had been itching for some pastels, or paints – hell, even watercolors to catch all the shades of green and blue and pink and yellow. But all he had was a standard No. 2 pencil – damn near worn to the nub, and a few blank pages at the back of his little sketchbook.

It was a dream. He knew it had happened long before, but it was a good memory. A warm, late summer day. The sunny, grassy smell of wildflowers and the outdoors. A fat bumblebee lazily buzzing its way to land right on Buck’s hat.

Sam plopped down on his other side.

Don’t you think we should move, Cap?”

Steve frowned, puzzled. Sam hadn’t been there. Hadn’t even been born yet.

Nah,” Bucky mumbled from under his hat. “She’s got perfect aim. We’re good.”

A silver canister flew through the air, catching the light as it tumbled, end over end. German soldiers emerged from the woods on the far side of the meadow just as it hit the ground, exploding in a flash of light.

The flowers were gone. The little stream reduced to a muddy trail through the torn up earth, littered with bodies. A bullet whizzed by his cheek, the passing of it sending a breeze along his skin that made the rough stubble of his beard stand up. Another enemy fell. Another man killed by Bucky before he could kill Steve.

Shield!” Natasha called out and Steve moved into position reflexively. She soared, the brown SSR uniform making her look like a sparrow in flight. She was beautiful against the blue sky.

He was laying on the lumpy couch in his apartment with Bucky, but it felt so much softer than he remembered. He could have lain there forever. Just never gotten up again. For once his lungs moved easily and his heart was calm.

Got applesauce from Mick last night – part of my payment for the double shift,” Bucky was saying. “Think ya could make some more of that cake – the chocolate kind?”

Jerk always wanted sweets. Food of any kind really. And Steve’s best friend couldn’t cook if his life depended on it. Mrs. Barnes was a good cook. Fluffy potatoes that were the envy of the neighborhood. Steve’s Ma had worked long shifts – too long to make dinner most nights and Steve was stuck inside anyhow, sick and unable to make much money to help with the rent. Learning to put a few ingredients together was the least he could do. It came in handy when he moved in with the bottomless pit that was Bucky Barnes.

Butter would be better,” Steve complained. Not that they had butter – too expensive. And lard never tasted quite right to him – not in cake – though Bucky would eat it anyhow.

Come on, punk. We got girls coming over.” And they must have already been there because Steve could smell the delicate scent of a familiar perfume and something indefinably feminine that made his stomach clench pleasantly. Steve wondered at these girls that were bold enough to come up to bachelor’s rooms for a meal. “At least some fresh bread?” Bucky continued, “I could put together a stew.”

You tryin’ to kill these dames?” Not that Buck’s cooking was that bad – it wasn’t a murder weapon. More like culinary assault. “And it’s too cold for dough to rise, Bucky.” He shivered in the chill air of the apartment where the heat never worked right. “Why’d ya invite them over, anyhow? I don’t need your help. I got Darcy…got a date with Darcy, so make your own fuckin’ bread ya lazy mook.” That’s right. He had a date with Darcy. He should pick up the place a little if she was coming over. Maybe Buck would trade him tidying up for a nice meal. Bucky deserved a nice meal if it would get him someone half as great as Darcy. Someone smart and pretty who wouldn’t need him to show off so damn much. Someone Bucky could worry after so he would let Steve the hell alone every once in a while.

Buck wasn’t listening, and Steve didn’t pay any attention to him either, suddenly too consumed with the idea that Darcy might see their pitiful little apartment at less than its best. He wanted to impress her, to make sure she would want to come back. There were drawing supplies and parts of two or three newspapers all over the living room. Empty coffee cups and his breakfast plate on the kitchen table. And through the open bedroom door he could see a pair of silk stockings hanging across the foot of his bed.

Darcy would look great in silk stockings.

Darcy better not see some other gal’s stockings on his bed.

Goddamn it, Buck!” he swore.

The room slipped and slid around him and Steve was suddenly shivering, cold and dark and afraid. His legs were wet. Or frozen. Or both. He couldn’t see anything but a few red dials and a dim blue glow on metal and glass and the rising water in the cabin. Oh. OH. He didn’t want to be here. Not again. No.

You could try to get out.”

Steve looked around for the source of the voice, but even with his perfect eyesight in the dark interior of the plane he could only make out a curvy figure and dark hair haloed around a pale face. Peg. She shouldn’t have been there. She wasn’t supposed to be there. She was safe, back at base. The water lapped at his knees, soaking his pants and numbing his skin. He felt the cold crawling further into him. His chest. His heart. Oozing into all the parts that had felt empty since Buck had fallen. The cold was a nice change from the burn of anger that had been consuming him. Anger at the Nazis. Anger at HYDRA. Anger at Bucky for not holding on tighter. Anger at himself for not moving quicker, for not reaching further.

For not following his friend.

You are a good swimmer, now. I know you can hold your breath for a long time. You need to try.”

His hands fell loose from the controls, slipping into the icy liquid. It was a relief. Just to let go. To rest for a bit and not have to feel so fucking useless. So sad and alone and like no matter what he did, how hard he tried, fought, grew fucking bigger – he still was no use to anyone. He was no good. It was getting darker. The ship sinking further from the surface and lit only by the glow of the tesseract.

Come on, my man, let’s get you dry.”

Steve blinked and peered closer into the darkness. It wasn’t Peg at all, but Darcy. Darcy’s dark hair and generous curves and her wicked smile replaced the wry tilt of Peggy’s mouth. Darcy. With him. Under the Arctic. Steve tried to find the buckles on his harness. He needed to get out. He had to get Darcy out. And Bucky – Buck was alive. Alive and trapped somewhere behind enemy lines. He’d get Darce, he’d save her somehow, get to the surface. Then he’d find Howard. Darcy could talk to him, convince him – she could convince anyone of anything – and they’d go find Buck. He just had to get free of those stupid restraints.

Come on,” he pleaded with her. “Climb out of the water. Up there,” he pointed to the back of the plane that hadn’t yet begun to fill. His heart was clawing out of his chest, fear making it hard to breathe. Terror at experiencing it all over again. But worse. So much worse. “Stay dry for me, sweetheart. I’ll get you out of here, I promise.” He frantically searched his mind for a plan, but his thoughts all scattered away.

A soft, soft body was pressed against his. Curved in all the right places. He smelled flowers and vanilla. His hands wrapped around arms that were so much smaller than his. Smooth skin and a sweet give to warm flesh that made him want to burrow in and rest there forever. Slick, wet hair sliding over his skin and petite hands gripping his back. He let out a whimper of need.

There you go.” Breath on the side of his neck, ghosting across his ear and making him shiver with pleasure.

You broke it.”

Tony’s suit looked terrible. Scratched, dented, face mask missing, the arc reactor ripped out of the casing. He was seated on a white sofa, a glass of liquor balanced on his crossed metal knees. He didn’t look mad, just amused. Steve hadn’t meant to break it. Hadn’t meant to break anything. Not the suit, not the team. Not their friendship.

You’ll have to pay for the repairs. Not a lot of marketable skills on your resume.” He tossed a paper bag Steve’s way. “Well, you’ll just have to work it off. Get going.” A curtain was going up, bright lights shining into his eyes so he could see nothing but the gleam on the metal of Tony’s suit and the bag in his hands. Catcalls and indistinct hollering came from the darkness beyond the lights. In the bag was his old USO suit. It looked distinctly more…sheer than he remembered.

Chop, chop, Cap. Time is money.”

His bathroom looked different. Not the yellowed wallpaper and cracked porcelain of the shared bath at his and Bucky’s place in Brooklyn. Not the disconcertingly old and yet new style of his SHIELD place in DC. Not the steel and glass of Wakanda or the cheap Formica of a hundred forgettable hostels and shitty motels. Not the expensive stone and art glass sinks of Stark’s tower. It was white. Clean. Glossy. He flushed the toilet, but the sound of running water kept going and going. He turned and became aware of the steam in the room, fogging up the glass shower.

And on the other side, Darcy’s wide blue-green eyes.

Steve smiled. He liked Darcy. Liked those peacock eyes with the thick dark lashes spiky with water and her full lips – dark pink without any makeup. Her pale skin was flushed prettily from the heat and he admired the round slope of her shoulders, the curve of her arm where it was extended – holding a yellow sponge that oozed bubbles. It smelled like vanilla. He loved vanilla. Darcy’s mouth fell open, but no sound came out. Steve laughed. Darcy, smelling like the best exotic vanilla and at a loss for words. His gaze fell lower, and even through the steam he could make out her lush figure, like an Afremov painting in wide sweeps of oils rich enough that he could taste the color.

Steve sighed happily. He wanted to draw her like that. Capture the moment forever. She was so beautiful. Beautiful and real and alive. He hoped she stayed.

God, he was tired. Tired and so hungry. His stomach was in knots, fighting itself and demanding attention. His bedding was soft and warm and rustled quietly as someone sat down next to him.

Sit up a bit more, Steve, or we’ll end up with this all over the bed. And I’m not doing laundry again today.”

Steve would do the laundry. He hated it. Five times now all his underwear had come out with a blue tint from the jeans. But he would do it. If it meant Darcy helping him to get it dirty again, he would do laundry every damn day and twice on Sundays. To hell with confession. He’d do it three times on Sundays and twice on the couch for good measure. If he wasn’t so worried about scaring Darcy off he’d of had her twisted up in his sheets since their first date. He’d do all the laundry himself and bring her meals in bed if it meant she would stay there, kissing him like she had in the elevator and pressing all of her generous everything against his bare skin.

Open up. I didn’t make this, so don’t worry I’m poisoning you. But you have to eat something. Growing boys and all.”

He’d show her growing. Just as soon as he had a nap. God, he was so tired. Steve reached out for her and found something warm and smooth and silky to hold on to. He’d just have to hold her there, until he was awake. Make sure she stayed until he could show her how much he wanted her to stay.

Steven Grant Rogers.”

Steve snapped to attention, his crooked spine aching at the sudden forced good posture. From the corner of his eye he could see Bucky, desperately trying to slide the evidence out the bedroom window and onto the narrow fire escape before Ma could see it. She’d be so disappointed. And there would be a talk. A Talk. And probably a wooden spoon to his backside and a month of extra chores for anyone in the building that needed help and double confession for at least two weeks. If Bucky didn’t hurry up he was going to get them both killed.

Yes, ma’am?”

Don’t you yes ma’am me. I know what you did.” She held his bedroom door open only partway, her blue eyes burning like the hellfire that was surely coming for him. The door kept Bucky out of sight, and it felt like the thinnest veneer of salvation.

Steve could feel a guilty flush creeping up his neck. It would be double confession for a month, and he’d be lucky if he saw Bucky again before Christmas. Buck was sliding the window closed, somehow keeping the old wood from squeaking like it usually did. Tears were welling up in his Ma’s eyes, and Steve wanted to die. He deserved it. He deserved to go to hell for what he had done. It had been mostly Bucky, but once he found out Steve hadn’t said anything. He was just as culpable.

Mr. Goody showed me the picture you drew him. Of his wife. Oh, leanbh. You know he lost all their photos in the fire when she died. I am so proud of you.” Tears actually did slip down her cheeks then. Steve’s stomach turned with what he was sure was the rot of evil sin.

He just wanted to do somethin’ nice, Mrs. Rogers.” Bucky strolled into view with all the sincere charm his eleven year old body could muster, settling on the edge of the bed next to Steve. Steve’s mouth fell open further. There they were, both headed straight to hell, and Buck looked like he’d sprout wings and a halo any moment.

You boys.” She gave Steve a strange look – no doubt his face was redder than Mrs. Fellite’s marinara. “I have to go to work, but I left some biscuits in the tin on the table. You help yourselves.” The door closed softly and Bucky was up in a flash, opening the window and reaching out to save the dog-eared copy of Nude Figure Photography he had found in an alley.

Steve was sure he could feel the warmth of the fiery pits licking at his feet.

*leanbh – baby/young child